Federal judge strikes down Montana’s campaign contribution limits

2012-10-04T00:00:00Z 2012-10-04T00:19:47Z Federal judge strikes down Montana’s campaign contribution limitsBy MIKE DENNISON IR State Bureau Helena Independent Record
October 04, 2012 12:00 am  • 

A federal judge Wednesday struck down Montana’s dollar limits on campaign contributions to state candidates, dealing another blow to long-standing state laws that attempt to limit money in politics.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell, of Helena, in a brief order, said the nearly 20-year-old limits violate free speech rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution, because they prevent candidates “from amassing the resources necessary for effective campaign advocacy.”

Lovell permanently blocked the state from enforcing its contribution limits, apparently opening the door for individuals, political parties and political action committees to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates running for Montana office this election season.

However, state Attorney General Steve Bullock — who’s also running for governor this year — said his office will ask for an emergency stay of Lovell’s ruling while it appeals the order to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“This is a destructive ruling for Montana’s citizen democracy, and disturbing for those of us who believe that democracy is not for sale and politics is about values and issues, not money,” said Bullock, a Democrat.

James Brown, a Dillon attorney for the coalition of individuals and business and political and Republican Party groups that sued to overturn the limits, called the ruling “a complete victory for my clients on the contribution limits.”

“We argued … that Montana’s admittedly low contributions limits prevent candidates from effectively conducting campaigns, and the court agreed,” Brown said.

The stricken limits say individuals and PACs could give no more than $630 each to a gubernatorial candidate, $310 to candidates for other statewide offices, such as attorney general or state auditor, and $160 to district or local candidates, such as those running for state Senate or school board.

The ruling also struck down limits on aggregate amounts that all political party groups or all PACs could give to a single candidate.

The ruling is another victory for a loose coalition of business and Republican groups that have challenged numerous Montana campaign-finance laws.

A leader of the coalition is American Tradition Partnership, whose earlier lawsuit led to the voiding this year of Montana’s 100-year-old law banning corporations from making independent expenditures promoting or opposing Montana candidates.

ATP calls itself a “grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda,” and has spent money on mailers and other campaign material blasting Montana candidates it says favor that agenda. ATP does not publicly disclose its donors.

Doug Lair, Montana director of ATP and a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the limits, said the limits “make it virtually impossible for a citizen to defeat an entrenched incumbent, which is why politicians love contributions limits.”

“The First Amendment is clear,” he said. “The political establishment can’t tell citizens to shut up because they’ve reached their speech limit.”

Brown, the attorney for ATP and the other plaintiffs, said they’ve never argued that the individual and PAC contribution limits should be abolished entirely. Instead, they want the Montana Legislature to set the limits higher, and preferably no lower than $1,000, he said.

If Lovell’s ruling stands, the 2013 Montana Legislature could set new limits — or set no limits at all.

Jonathan Motl, a Helena attorney who wrote the 1994 voter initiative that created some of the limits struck down Wednesday, said the limits were designed to give smaller donors more power in the political process.

“It’s a sad day, because it takes political power away from the average Montanan,” he said.

Lovell said he issued the order quickly so it could apply to the current election, and that he’ll issue a more complete ruling later, fully explaining his reasoning.

Copyright 2015 Helena Independent Record. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(8) Comments

  1. Reader14
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    Reader14 - October 04, 2012 5:22 pm
    Interesting that my comment was included and now is not, here it is again.

    This whole campaign financing situation is appalling. By striking down voter passed Montana restrictions and limits, the Feds have once again stomped on State's rights. Apparently we have rights only when they agree with the Feds. What's next...Montana's term limits for State officials?

    How does spending money on campaigns constitute "free" speech? Unlimited contributions are nothing more than buying offices. Another problem is a lot of money comes from people outside the candidate's constituency. It would not be surprising if a lot of it was coming from foreign interests.

    It seemed odd that at least one candidate was stumping for election in a foreign country. What’s up with that?

    Too much money is spent on campaigns in these days of multi-media. A candidate should be able to get their message out to the voters without having to run all over the place glad handing people who just want their picture taken with the candidate, and who had likely already decided to vote for that candidate anyway.

    If the campaign money spent so far in all the races this year were put toward the deficit, we might be able to break the surface in the sea of red ink. It would be better spent on education, sustainable energy projects, and bringing jobs back from overseas.

    Maybe a way to stem the tide of unlimited campaign spending is to eliminate the tax deduction for campaign contributions and/or require that contributions only come from entities within the candidate’s constituency.
  2. forthekids
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    forthekids - October 04, 2012 2:31 pm
    Apparently all the posters on here think the voters are complete idiots and are not intelligent enough to see through all the hype and come to a rational voting decision on their own in spite of how much money is spent telling them how to think. These are probably the same people who think our school system is doing a great job educating our kids.

    “This is a destructive ruling for Montana’s citizen democracy, and disturbing for those of us who believe that democracy is not for sale and politics is about values and issues, not money,” said Bullock, a Democrat. Excellent point Steve. Where are you going to donate back all the money you have been taking? What about the PAC money paying your campaign staff? How about the money you got to keep since you had a last minute "opponent" in the primary? Sorry Steve, but you don't get to have it both ways.

    This truly illustrates the difference between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives believe in the individual and free will. Liberals believe in Big Brother.
  3. Riamh
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    Riamh - October 04, 2012 10:39 am
    Sad as this is, it's not surprising. The Corporate takeover of of the government is nearly complete.
  4. RickyBobby
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    RickyBobby - October 04, 2012 10:20 am
    We need to put a "Sold" sign on all the welcome to Montana signs, thanks Judge Lovell for selling out the citizens of Montana, even though you don't have the authority to make that call. Now Jim Brown and the human refuse he represents are openly free to destroy our state. The ironic thing is I am willing to bet all the legal bills for Brown's crusade are paid by out of state individuals and organizations wanting to use Montana as a proving ground for their morally corrupt system. And Jim Brown has the audacity to run for government after he gutted the system that actually protects Montanans. That is what he and American Tradition Partnership want after all, to buy elections..........
  5. citizenx
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    citizenx - October 04, 2012 7:58 am
    Everyday in the paper is a article on how a federal judge has told montana's what we are going to do. These federal judges in MT must be the busiest judges in the US because it seems like they are making non constitutional decesions every day..Personally I am so sick and tired of reading articles about federal judges. It doesnt seem like this country is ran by anybody but federal judges. There is a tipping point when the people just will not take any more of the federal courts. Has anybody been to a federal courthouse, wow they are super nice with expensive art all throughout the buildings. The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. Why have a state court, a state supreme court when the federal court system seems to be making there own decesions about MT. And dont challenge the federal system because they will tell you how you can defend your point.
  6. Rj506
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    Rj506 - October 03, 2012 5:43 pm
    Nope, Montana is "for sale" Thanks Judge Lovell! Our electoral votes don't count for the presidency, but now the big corps will be allowed to campaign here as well for our state and local offices. Thanks! We appreciate it. complete BS
  7. steeline
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    steeline - October 03, 2012 5:29 pm
    I don't always agree with Flam, but I agree with her comments on this one. The only thing that I could add is that with inflation they will have to spend even more money to get their boy or girl elected. We have to restore the American dream.
  8. FlamingLiberal1
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    FlamingLiberal1 - October 03, 2012 4:02 pm
    Just dandy. Money is not speech, corporations are not people, but apparently elections are now for sale.
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